A Bus Crash, Litigation, and a Surprising Result: Part II

Editor’s Note: A Bus Crash, Litigation, and a Surprising Result is a complex and extraordinary story involving crash deaths, corporate malfeasance, regulatory gaps and litigation that produced significant results – not just for the plaintiffs, but for public safety. Given the length necessary to do this story justice, The Safety Record has decided to publish it in two parts.  Following is Part II

 

FHWA Grades Guardrail on a Curve

Last Friday the 13th was a very unlucky day for taxpayers – that was the day the Federal Highway Administration announced that we, the people, would continue to reimburse states that choose to install an energy-absorbing guardrail end terminal that has been maiming and killing us. That announcement was bundled in a package of technical papers designed to explain away the last of eight tests on the safety of the ET-Plus energy-absorbing guardrail.

FHWA Pulls a NHTSA on Guardrails

Wednesday, the Federal Highway Administration announced some big, big news: Trinity Industries will test its ET-Plus guardrails in a way that virtually guarantees a passing grade, thereby ensuring that the agency’s past decisions are validated.

 

The Safety Record confesses those were not the agency’s exact words. The FHWA said:

States Start Dropping the ET-Plus Guardrail

In the wake of a study on the safety of energy-absorbing guardrail end treatments sponsored by The Safety Institute, Missouri and Massachusetts DOT officials have announced that they will no longer consider the ET-Plus, manufactured by Trinity Industries, as approved highway safety equipment and are dropping the design from current and future construction projects.

Are Trinity Guardrails Safe?

On June 8, Cynthia Martin and Richard Blaine Markland of Dayton, Ohio, were southbound on I-93 in Ashland, New Hampshire, when the sedan left the roadway and struck a guardrail. Those steel rails lining the highway are designed to execute a complex task: keep the vehicle from leaving the roadway without deflecting the striking vehicle back into traffic, while allowing it to safely ride down the crash forces.

But the ET-Plus guardrail that driver Cynthia Martin struck did not yield to her Subaru Impreza and peel away from the vehicle like a flat metal ribbon. Instead, it penetrated the occupant compartment at the passenger side wheel well, slicing Markland and Martin in the legs and knees. The spear formed by the folded guardrail terminal end cap sheared Markland’s knee caps and caused both to sustain serious fractures. Both have undergone multiple surgeries to repair the damage. Markland is still in the hospital two months later.

“I know we spun around,” Markland said. “The guardrail had come into the car. Cindy was feeling a lot of pressure on her leg. My right leg was an open fracture with 4-6 inches of bone exposed. My right foot was trapped between the guardrail and the airbag, and some flesh was strewn across the inside of the car. The guardrail pushed a dent in my knee area. I knew something was wrong. Seeing my leg in that condition, I was screaming.”

The Martin incident is just the latest in a string of crashes in which an ET-Plus guardrail failed to perform properly, with devastating results for motorists and their passengers. But, according to Federal Highway Administration communications with the chief engineer of the New Hampshire state department of transportation, it never should have happened. Documents released as a result of a Safety Research & Strategies lawsuit in federal court, show that the FHWA and Trinity have devoted considerable energies to tamping down allegations that a 2005 dimensional change to the guardrail end terminals have turned these highway safety devices into weapons, rather than seriously investigating them.

Dallas-based Trinity, the globally dominant producer and seller of guardrail systems, has been battling these accusations since 2012, when Joshua Harman, president of a competitor company, SPIG Industries, of Bristol, Va., charged that sometime between 2002 and 2005, Trinity modified the design of its original guardrail end terminal design, the ET-2000, causing it to fail in crashes and injure and kill occupants in striking vehicles. 

These allegations have been the subject of news stories and civil liability, patent infringement, fraud and freedom of information lawsuits. The stakes are high. State departments of transportation buy highway safety equipment from a list of vendors whose products have been crash-tested and approved by the Federal Highway Administration; the FHWA reimburses states that use approved equipment. So, the FHWA’s acceptance is critical to a manufacturer’s business. States rely on FHWA certification as an indication that the equipment performs adequately. Without knowing it, motorists also depend on the federal agency’s imprimatur when they crash into a guardrail – to get the best chance of surviving the crash safely.

Unlike other regulatory approvals from other agencies, such as the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration or the Food and Drug Administration, there is no avenue for consumer or the state to resolve defect issues. The FHWA has no enforcement power, expect to withhold its acceptance letter. The New Hampshire crash and others like it demonstrate the weakness of this “system,” when it breaks down.

The Background

In the 1960s guardrail designs used blunt ends that acted like a spear, penetrating the vehicle occupant compartment in a crash. The turned-down twist design of the 1970s buried the exposed ends, but acted like a ramp in a crash, causing vehicles to rollover. Today’s preferred design is the Energy-Absorbing End Terminal, which absorbs the crash energy, bends the end terminal away from the vehicle, and extrudes it through a slot into a flat metal ribbon.

Don’t Settle, NHTSA

Yesterday, the agency sent General Motors an extraordinary 27-page Special Order compelling the automaker to answer 107 questions about an ignition defect in the 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalt and six other models that claimed at least 13 lives and injured at least 31.

Retired NHTSA senior enforcement lawyer Alan Kam said that he’d never seen anything like it.

We are encouraged by NHTSA’s aggressive and swift action, and we are hoping and wishing and praying for actual enforcement follow-through that benefits and protects consumers, rather than merely burnishes the agency’s image.

We all know – including GM – that a big, fat fine is in their future for failing to launch a recall within five days of discovering a defect, as Marietta, Ga. attorney Lance Cooper found out. Cooper obtained internal documents during the discovery phase of a lawsuit on behalf of the family of the late Brooke Melton, showing that GM engineers discovered in 2004 that the ignition of the 2005 Cobalt could wander from the run to off or accessory position while the vehicle is underway. 

NHTSA Proposes Side Impact Protection for Children

With just six months to go before a Final Rule is due to be published, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released its proposal to add side impact testing to the child seat safety standard for children up to 40 pounds.

To the uninformed, the NPRM reads like the history of an agency moving forward expeditiously toward a test that will lead the way for global child safety standards. And it is true that the proposed sled test adds a new deformable door component. But a more complete dive into the history of side-impact crashes and protection for child shows that this innovation should have been an amendment to an existing side impact test for child safety seats. This proposal is waaaaay late, and the result of not one—but two—Congressional mandates, about a dozen years apart.

Here’s the truth: (And you can measure it by policy, by regulation, by research, by public engagement – it all comes out the same.) Protecting children in crashes has never been a priority for the agency, nor for the automakers. That’s how you get the first side-impact compliance test for child safety seats in 2014.

Nonetheless, some child seat safety experts are applauding the effort.

“I’m very excited that this is finally being implemented,” said Gary Whitman, Vice President, Research and Development at ARCCA Inc, and an expert in occupant crash safety systems who has tested hundreds of child seats and collaborated with NHTSA, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatric Child Injury Prevention, National SAFE KIDS Campaign, and the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania in child restraint research. “It’s long overdue and it’s a shame that it required an act of Congress.”

At the same time, Whitman and biomechanical expert Salena Zellers Schmidtke agree that the proposal has some serious deficits – it only protects children up to 40 pounds, and makes questionable assumptions about the efficacy of side air curtains for children in booster seats in a side impact crash.

Strickland Takes Express to Lobbytown

Well, we cracked open our virtual newspaper the other morning and found a bunch of non-news – winter is cold, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s a bully, and such. On the inside page, however, was a non-news story of particular interest: Former NHTSA Administrator David Strickland is leaving public service to re-enter public service as a lobbyist for the venerable firm of Venable LLP, which describes its business thus:

 "As the federal government’s regulatory reach expands, it is more important than ever to have a finger on the pulse of legislative and executive branch decision makers in Washington. Long recognized as one of the capitol’s leading law firms, Venable’s Washington office helps clients understand how evolving regulatory and policy issues can affect their businesses. The firm also assists clients in making their voices heard as policy is being crafted through both direct lobbying and the management of numerous issue-focused industry coalitions."

On its website, Venable boasts about helping clients clear regulatory hurdles, and successfully defending clients in product liability cases involving asbestos, tobacco, automobiles, industrial chemicals, and consumer electronics, as one of the nation’s “top defense firms.”

In hiring Strickland, Venable described him thus:

“An advocate for public safety on the roads, David has impressed the industry with his accomplishments,” said Brock R. Landry, co-chair of Venable’s Government Division. “From the Hill to the Administration, David is well respected and understands the often complex regulatory process from different points of view. He will play a key role in the ongoing growth of our Government Affairs, Automotive, and Technology practices.”

 

We think that the thing industry will be most impressed by was the pass David Strickland gave Toyota’s electronics in the Unintended Acceleration crisis. Sure, the government fined Toyota to the max. But the automaker only had to pay penalties for failing to mount timely recalls for floor mat interference and sticky accelerator pedals. NHTSA whitewashed the problems of Toyota’s electronic throttle control system. And, it was still chump change to the automaker. More importantly, it gave Toyota a federal cover in litigation against claims of an electronics defect. And, while the explosive Bookout verdict kinda blew that cover off with the conclusion of two respected experts that Toyota’s software was dangerous spaghetti code, (See Toyota Unintended Acceleration and the Big Bowl of “Spaghetti” Code) Strickland, as Robin to Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s Batman, did his part.

Toyota Lawsuits Wrapped?

Toyota is looking to close out its unintended acceleration crisis, with a speedy resolution to the remaining lawsuits out there. According to news reports, the automaker has been inspired by the Bookout verdict to settle a whole passel of UA lawsuits. Last month, for example, Toyota came to terms with Opal Gay Vance, a West Virginia woman who injured her neck and back, when her 2010 Camry suddenly accelerated, striking a trailer. The confidential settlement forestalled a trial set to begin on Jan. 21. In California, orders from judges in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana and Los Angeles Superior Court opened the door to settlements in nearly 300 death and injury plaintiffs’ cases.

“We’re glad to see that Toyota has decided to approach this in a systematic and forthright way, and we look forward to seeing most of the pending claims settled in early 2014,” says attorney Donald Slavik of Robinson, Calcagnie, Robinson, Shapiro, Davis Inc. of Newport Beach, CA.

The race to empty the court dockets should not be confused with a conclusion to Toyota’s UA technical problems, which continue unabated. SRS took a stroll through the Vehicle Owners Questionnaire database, looking for 2013 UA complaints and found more than 300. They cover all of the classic scenarios, like this one:

"I backed my 2006 Toyota Corolla into a friend's driveway, and then put the car into drive to straighten it a bit. The car suddenly without warning shot across the street (perhaps at 45-50 mph), went over a 6" high cement retaining curbing, and across a lawn into another driveway. All the while I had my foot firmly on the brake (not the gas pedal). I swerved the wheel to avoid hitting a telephone pole, and the house. I finally got the car into neutral, and at last the brakes engaged, and I was able to stop the car avoiding a pick-up truck in the driveway and a tree. During this entire time the engine was loudly revving. Other than 3 shredded tires and 2 ruined rims, the car seems to be intact. I have contacted Toyota and hope for a successful resolution. The service manager at the dealership where this vehicle was purchased, however, said that since it is not under recall there is nothing they can do. Meanwhile I will be fearful every time I get behind the wheel, which I have yet to do!    3 new tires and 2 new rims is a small price to pay - it could have been my life! Had cars been passing by on this normally busy street, or children walking on the sidewalk on their way home from school - other lives as well could have been taken. This was a terrifying event! Judging from all of the similar stories written regarding this make, model and year, Toyota needs to do a recall to solve this problem once and for all." (ODI 10496026)

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